In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that any book whose first chapter prominently features the words “holistic” and “empowerment” has a heavy burden to surmount with this reviewer. This is particularly the case when the subject under discussion is Semitic religion before the eighth century B.C. Karen Armstrong’s new book, A History of God, both incurs and utterly fails to overcome that burden.
Subtitled “The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” A History of God is billed as a comparative study of how adherents of these religions have described their experience of the divine over the course of history. It seeks to accomplish this end largely through seriatim sketches of the writings of major religious figures, grouped under headings such as “The God of the Philosophers,” “The God of the Mystics,” “The Death of God?,” and concluding with “Does God Have a Future?” Unsurprisingly, in this age of historicism, Armstrong’s thesis is that each generation remakes its vision of the deity in its own image so that God will “work for them” and that a fresh reworking is due. A History of God does not quite live up to its racy title; but it is, quite simply, one of the most obnoxious books to cross my desk in a very long time.
Compassion and justice are good, “establishments” are not.
I am put in mind of a recent conversation with one of my academic colleagues. In response to persistent questioning about the value theory underlying his work, he doggedly repeated, “In the postmodern age, now that God is dead, pragmatism is all we have.” In a country in which the percentage of church membership is higher than it was in the eighteenth century, and in a decade that has witnessed resurgent fundamentalism throughout the Islamic world and increasing church attendance in both Eastern and Western Europe, this struck me as odd, even granting the ten-year time lag between events in the real world and their reception in the academy. Indeed, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “news of God’s death is vastly overstated.” The fact that Karen Armstrong’s book has attained “best seller” status in England is yet another indication of the public’s hunger for the things of religion. Unfortunately, if the laity must make do with such thin gruel as this—with the endorsement of persons of the cloth—religion, if not God, might as well be dead.
Compressing four thousand years of history into four hundred pages, A History of God has the feel of one of those much-satirized package tours of Europe: everything flashes past the window at breakneck speed and the visitor returns home having seen everything and learned nothing. The book is long on detail and short on any themes but the most heavy-handed. Mystics are good, rationalists are bad. Non-Western cultures are good, Western culture is bad. Compassion and justice are good, “establishments” are not. I suppose it proves that Manicheanism, like God, has a certain staying power.
In fact, reading this book induces a disorienting nostalgia, as if, by some cruel trick, the 1960s haven’t really ended after all. Take Armstrong’s reading of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The passage bears quoting at length. Armstrong tells us that
(Have I mentioned that there is an arresting deadpan wackiness to this book that would be funny if it weren’t meant to be taken so seriously?)
The transcendent God, when He isn’t fomenting revolution, is subject to abuse by mankind.
Not contented with transforming Moses into the Lenin of his day and the Israelites into the vanguard of the proletariat, Armstrong announces that the prophets Amos, Isaiah—despite his possible status as “a member of the ruling class”—and Muhammad were all protosocialists: They used “the idea of God to … ends that were quite close to the Marxist ideal.” On the other hand, Armstrong muses, “[s]trange as it may seem, the idea of ‘God,’ like the other great religious insights of the period, developed in a market economy in a spirit of aggressive capitalism.” It appears that Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun who has transformed herself into what the jacket blurb describes as “one of the foremost British commentators on religious figures,” has missed the developments of the last few years: while God most assuredly is not dead, Marxism is very much so indeed.
God himself appears in two forms in Armstrong’s work. He is either personal and transcendent, in which case He can “encourage perpetual immaturity,” or He is immanent and inherent, in which case He is an “essentially subjective and personal enlightenment” and, accordingly, a very good thing. The transcendent God, when He isn’t fomenting revolution, is subject to abuse by mankind. A transcendent God can, in no special order, be “manipulated to shore up the beleaguered self,” be made into a “Republican or a socialist, a racist or a revolutionary according to our personal views,” be “an idol made in our own image and easily turned into a celestial Super Ego,” or become a “grave liability … a mere idol carved in our own image, a projection of our own limited needs, fears and desires.”
Milton, in particular, fares badly in the God sweepstakes. Like many another academic manqué, Armstrong seems to have taken a visceral dislike to Paradise Lost. There, she opines,
When Lucifer made much the same point with far more eloquence, Milton had a ready response: “Oh argument blasphemous, false and proud.”
Given this buildup, Armstrong’s discussion of the God of the mystical tradition is rather disappointing; she doesn’t have all that much to say once she is done ringing changes on the word “immanence.” To be fair, this may be because the essential insight of mysticism is that God is an experience beyond words, straining even the power of metaphor. Armstrong does, however, claim some rather unlikely exponents of a subjective deity, including St. Augustine, for whom—his Confessions notwithstanding— she contends, “God … was not an objective reality but a spiritual presence in the complex depths of the self.” Indeed, she argues that, while “only a few people are capable of true mysticism, … in all three faiths (with the exception of Western Christianity) it was the God experienced by the mystics which eventually became normative among the faithful, until relatively recently.” This assertion seems a bit extravagant, considering that we are also told that the claims of Sufi mystics “would certainly arouse the ire of the establishment,” an ire formally expressed through the crucifixion of at least one Sufi adept for blasphemy. It also dismisses the important strain of experiential piety that runs through European Christianity in favor of a rather restricted view of mysticism.
Genuine mystics, as Armstrong relates, insist that God is “not an-Other Being.” In fact He “does not really exist and it is better to call him Nothing.” This understanding has the great virtue of being “in tune with the atheistic mood of our secular society.” Its only drawback is that the mystical God displays a rather inconsiderate reticence; He can only be approached through long training and “considerable investment of time,” which appears not to be consonant with the ethos of our age. But as Armstrong explains, “since hallucination is often a pathological state, considerable skill and mental balance is required to handle the symbols that emerge.”
While Armstrong sets forth a tripartite project of studying the “God-religions” (the phrase is hers), her sympathies are altogether clear—and they do not lie with what she calls the “western” tradition, a synonym for Latin Christianity. Presumably this is because both Judaism and Islam (as well as the Eastern rite) have presented a more fertile ground for mysticism. She also stoutly asserts that Islam has a greater ethic of tolerance toward other religions than does Christianity. And, indeed, the acceptance of Jews by the Ottoman Empire, especially after the expulsion from Spain, is well known. Armstrong fails to observe, however, that this tolerance extended only to Christians and Jews, and even then Islamic governments imposed special disabilities on these “peoples of the book.” Not content to leave well enough alone, Armstrong further pronounces that “the intolerance that many people condemn in Islam today does not always spring from a rival vision of God but from quite another source. Muslims are intolerant of injustice, whether this is committed by rulers of their own—like Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran—or by powerful western countries.”
Armstrong saves her strongest distaste for Western Christianity. In the West, God is a “strain.” Its incarnational theology is “difficult”; “it has been all too easy to make this ‘God’ a projection, which has recently become discredited.” In other words, Western Christianity is founded on the concept of a transcendent God.
Thus, Armstrong characterizes the entire Reformation as an effort to allay the sexual and social anxieties that were expressed in the witchcraft persecutions of the fifteenth century. Luther is dismissed as a “rabid anti-Semite, a misogynist, … convulsed with a loathing and horror of sexuality, and [the belief that] all rebellious peasants should be killed.” His vision of a “wrathful God had filled him with personal rage” that “did great harm to the Reformation.” Calvin fares better, apparently because “Calvinism is more easily discarded by its adherents than Roman Catholicism” and because Calvin was “not particularly interested in dogma”—a proposition that would surely be met with surprise by readers of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, a worthy document that is nothing if not an exercise in dogmatics.
Newton spent years attempting to perfect alchemy and conjure angels.
Armstrong’s penchant for time travel also leads to some remarkably loopy comparisons and idiosyncratic transitions. For example, Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150–215) is described as enunciating a rule of life that was “remarkably similar to the detailed rules of conduct prescribed by the Rabbis except that it had more in common with the Stoic ideal.” The German philosopher Hegel fares even worse. His concept of the world spirit was “in some respects strikingly similar to the Kabbalah,” the great Jewish mystical work, a resemblance that Armstrong terms “ironic” because Hegel regarded Judaism as an “ignoble religion which was responsible for the primitive conception of God that had perpetrated great wrong.” In fact, Hegel rates a scant two paragraphs of attention, less than either the three pages given the Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth-century founder of Hasidism, or the four pages devoted to Sabbatai Ha Zevi, the false messiah of seventeenth-century Judaism. In one particularly stunning transition, Armstrong jumps from the Islamic–Jewish dialogue of the eleventh and twelfth centuries to the crusades to the reintroduction of Greek thought into the West by Duns Scotus Erigena in three essentially unconnected paragraphs.
All this is bad enough, but the book is riddled throughout with errors and misstatements both great and small. The latter range from the misspelling of American historian Alan Heimert’s name to the misreading of the Old Testament passage in which Elijah challenges the priests of Baal (I Kings 18). Other statements are simply misleading. Although she remarks that the “Midianite theory”—the God of Exodus was originally a deity of the people of Midian among whom Moses lived in exile—is usually discredited by scholars, Armstrong nevertheless proceeds to build upon the theory as if it were fact. Similarly, she argues that the deity she styles the Israelite war god, Adonai Sabaoth (roughly translated as the Lord of Hosts), only wins the affections of his people from the Canaanite fertility god Baal when he shows that He controls rain as well as victory. Yet, in what some believe to be the oldest verses in the Bible, the war song of the Judge Deborah (Judges 5:4-5), the God of the Israelites is depicted in the following words: “when thou camest marching out of the plains of Edom, earth trembled; heaven quaked; the clouds streamed down in torrents.” The war God and the storm God are one. Although I am not familiar with the Islamic sources, presumably the same cavalier attitude prevails in those sections as well.
Inattention in these small matters betokens similar laxity in greater issues. For example, in her discussion of the religious thought of Isaac Newton, Armstrong tells us that he “had no time for mystery, which he equated with ignorance and superstition.” Newton’s discontent with conventional trinitarian theology—he professed Arianism, the belief that Jesus is not co-equal with God the Father—became an “obsession” to “purge this mumbo jumbo from the Christian faith,” evidenced in his extensive theological writings. Unfortunately, Armstrong barely mentions Newton’s obsession with the Book of Revelation, which led him to scrutinize the events of the day for the playing out of the end times in history, hardly the leisure pursuit of a dedicated purger of “mumbo jumbo.” Even more to the point, recent studies have shown that Newton spent years attempting to perfect alchemy and conjure angels—the selfsame years he spent composing the Principia Mathematica. At the very worst, this demonstrates that seventeenth-century rationalism was not the same thing as twentieth-century rationalism, an observation easily lost in Armstrong’s shuffle.
Armstrong’s utter lack of sympathy with the reformed tradition leads her to some even greater sloppiness. She describes the great American religious figure Jonathan Edwards as nothing more than a “hellfire preacher.” While this overlooks Edwards’s extensive theological writings—running to some ten volumes in the Yale University Press edition—Armstrong doesn’t even manage to get his career as a revivalist right. She mistakes Edwards’s 1734 revival in his Northampton, Massachusetts, parish—commemorated in his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737) and occasioned by a dry sermon series on the topic of justification by faith alone, rather than by any mention of fire and brimstone—for the 1740–1743 national revival ushered in by the tours of evangelist George Whitefield. Armstrong further describes the “tragic finale” of the revival as the inevitable result of a God “who revealed himself in such abnormality and distress” and who was “just as frightening and arbitrary in his dealings with his people as ever.” Although there was a tragic incident at the end of the Northampton revival—the suicide of Edwards’s uncle—the only remotely tragic outgrowth of the national awakening, to the best of my knowledge, was the American Revolution. Moreover, Armstrong ignores both Edwards’s own testimony as to the lasting religious comfort that grew from both revivals and the fact that, even though the form may not have been acceptable to her, many people found a direct sense of the “inward sweet delight” of divine things as a result of their revival experience.
Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of A History of God lies not in its content, however, but in its chirpily condescending tone. Armstrong falls into the very trap she derides in others: she seeks to remake the deity into a form that would suit her personal needs, having, as she confides on several occasions, discarded the Catholicism of her childhood. In the process, she diminishes the beliefs of those who would seek to live within the confines of a traditional faith and particularly those who find in the doctrines of sin and redemption through grace—the radical otherness of God—a path through this fallen and tragic world. The late Sydney Ahlstrom, the distinguished historian of American religion at Yale, used to say that people should always discuss religion as if a practicing member of every denomination were in the room. This, rather than a search for self, ought to inform any serious study of comparative religion. Or, to resort to Scripture (1 Corinthians 12:4-7): “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all men, are the work of the same God. In each of us the Spirit is manifested in one particular way, for some useful purpose.”